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A series of essays towards General Convention in 2003

How many times to I have to forgive

How many times do I have to forgive?

Pentecost XVII – Proper 19A – the Rev’d Elizabeth Kaeton – St. Paul’s, Chatham


My friends in 12-Step Recovery Programs tell me that “Coincidence” is the name God uses when God wants to remain anonymous.


The theme of forgiveness, much to my consternation and distress, stand like Gospel Bookends at the beginning and end of the week of The Events of September 11th.  That is no coincidence. It’s no coincidence that these posters with the names of all those who died one year ago are hanging in the bays of our church where we traditionally hang the stations of the Cross.  It’s no coincidence that today marks the beginning of the most solemn time for our Jewish brothers and sisters – Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement or forgiveness of sins. It’s also no coincidence that the Women’s Commission of the Diocese of Newark chose this weekend to focus their conference on Domestic Violence.


In the first two weeks after the tragedy of September 11th, reporting of domestic violence took a sudden, shocking increase.  And yet, shelters for battered women, for the first time in month, had empty beds. It seemed that, even though violence towards women was on the increase, women were not seeking sanctuary or refuge as they once had.  Many of us wondered why.  While we had no answer to our own question, we know that we were witnessing yet another layer of the complex, interwoven strands of violence. 


It was no coincidence that the violent attack on this country was perpetrated by members of a fanatical religious cult which considers women to have a status just a little above cattle; a religious cult so misogynist that it considered the equal status of women in this country a sign of the decadence and debauchery that are, in their estimation, displeasing to the “natural order” of God. One of the terrorist who was on one of those planes left explicit instructions that, in death, his body was not to be prepared for burial by a woman.


It was no coincidence that one of the major themes of the Conference on Domestic Violence was forgiveness.  Specifically it was asked: What is Christian forgiveness? What does Jesus mean when he says we must forgive, “not seven times but seventy-seven times”?  What does Jesus mean when he says from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”?  What word of gospel truth can one say about forgiveness in the battered face of an unforgivable sin of violence?


One of my clearest memories of being at the place just 24 hours after the name of the location changed from the World Trade Center to what will forever be ‘Ground Zero’, was listening to the “buzz” from the rescue workers – especially the firemen.  Just below the thunder of the flatbed trucks hauling debris, and hovering a degree or so above conversational level, I kept hearing an anguished whisper, a shameful secret being told to members of the same private fraternity: “. . . broke . . .protocol.  They broke protocol.”


Curious and intrigued, I finally marched myself up to one of the chiefs and engage him in conversation long enough to charm him, win his trust, and finally work up the nerve to ask whatever on earth were they talking about. 


Exhausted but somehow relieved to be telling the truth out loud, he confessed as he explained to me that everyone is taught the same first, important lesson when a building is on fire.  “First,” he said, as if reading the words from memory on the blackboard in some far away classroom in Firefighter’s School, “you evacuate and then you secure the perimeter of the building.”


His voice cracked with emotion, “They broke protocol,” “They didn’t secure the perimeter of the building. They thought the building would never come down.  Just like they guys who thought the Titanic would never sink, so they ignored the safety protocol and didn’t have enough lifeboats on board for everyone.”


“Arrogance!” his voice rose in anger, “Damned human arrogance!” And then, wiping a tear from his eye he said, “No absolution!  There’s no absolution for that sin.”  A shiver ran through me as I remembered that the first track on the musical score written for the movie Titanic is entitled, “No Absolution.”


Do we believe that?  Do we believe that there’s no forgiveness?  No absolution?


In our discussion yesterday afternoon, the group of 50 or so women and men who met to discuss and learn about Domestic Violence did some brainstorming about what we have been taught about forgiveness. Some of what I jotted down in my notes are: “Forgive and forget.”  “Make up and make nice.” “Turn the other cheek.”  “Love your enemy.” “Like water off a duck’s back.”  “Forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins against us.”


Can we do that for the nineteen terrorists who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in rural PA?  Can we ‘forgive and forget’?  As Christians, are we supposed to? Do the suicide deaths of 19 terrorists compensate for the 2,881 people who died that day, whose names adorn the walls of our church where the Stations of the Cross traditionally hang? 


Have you prayed for them, our enemies?  I tried.  Once.  A few days after The Events of 9/11. I got about one-third of the way down the list of the names of the 19 terrorists and I became physically ill.  I called my spiritual director and she said, “Stop!  It’s too soon.” And, I confess, I haven’t tried to pray for them again or since.


In the words of one of the presenters at yesterday’s conference, “Shall we ask an abused woman to ‘turn the other cheek’ when the other is battered and beaten and bruised?” That speaker went on to say what it is I believe: we can not hear any of the words of Jesus which admonish us to forgive unless we lay them side by side with his commandment to the traditional Hebrew law to “love your neighbor as yourself.” 


One of the great rules in the cosmos is this: You cannot give away what you do not have. You cannot love anyone until you love yourself.  It is equally important to remember that you cannot forgive others what you cannot forgive in yourself. Read again the parable of the Wicked Servant from today’s gospel (Matthew 18:21-35)


Traditional Christian notions of forgiveness have become so coated with saccharin sentimentality that most sermons I have heard on the subject sound like someone is reading a Hallmark Greeting Card.  Forgiveness takes an enormous amount of work – hard, painful work.  Forgiveness is a long, arduous process of healing.  It takes time. 


If the process is rushed, the pain of the abuse or act of violence or resultant death or injury can lead to denial which can breed anger, resentment and depression.  In the process of forgiveness, a high premium must be placed on honesty and integrity and authenticity.  Forgiveness is not an acquittal.  Rather, belief in forgiveness implies that anger and resentment obstruct our relationship with God.


The first part of the ‘Great commandment is:  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength.”  The second part is like unto it:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  In the Christian life, one does not exist without the other.  The forgiveness of which Jesus speaks in this morning’s gospel can not been understood unless viewed through this lens of Love – love of God, love of self and love of one’s neighbor.


We forgive because we want to choose a vibrant relationship with God.  We forgive not because it edifies the perpetrator.  Indeed, repentance or priestly absolution is not required for forgiveness.  Forgiveness is edifying primarily to the person who has been abused or who has suffered directly from the effects of violence and loss.  As one of the speakers said, “The person who forgives is saying to the perpetrator of violence or terrorism, ‘I will not allow your evil to contaminate me any longer.’” It is to say, “I will not allow your terrorism to stand in the way of my relationship with God. I will not allow your violence to stand in the way of my relationship with the rest of God’s creation.”


Forgiveness is hopeful because it restores right relationship with God and God’s creation. That is not to say that we must also forget.  Indeed, the night before he was betrayed, Jesus asked us never to forget.  He asked, “Whenever you do these things, do them in memory of me.”  Jesus knew that the first step on the road to our salvation is contained within our ability to remember. 


Memory fills us with hope, because we are then able to keep alive the spirit of the one who died.  And, if we keep that person’s spirit alive, we can learn the lessons we need to learn from the events which brought us the tragedy.  And, if we learn the lessons we need to learn from tragedy, then our loved ones will not have died in vain.


Jesus says we must forgive our neighbor “from our heart.”  That is a long process.  It requires peeling back layer after layer of memory, and that can feel like peeling back the thin skin of an onion to get to the core of truth.  There’s a great deal of tears.  It’s a painful process.  Each layer calls up another reflection, another reminiscence – over and   over and over and over again, until we think we shall go mad with the pain. I believe this is part of what Jesus means when he says we must forgive “seventy times seven.”  It is what God does with us.   It is what God expects from us. 


There’s no coincidence in the fact that, from the cross, Jesus asks for the forgiveness of those who have caused his death by crucifixion on the cross of shame.  He is neither condoning nor acquitting the suffering caused by the violence perpetrated by religious fanatics.  Rather, Jesus is telling us that God understands our human suffering.  God is, indeed, with us in our suffering.  For, if we believe in the Incarnation, then we believe that an essential part of God hung there on the cross in the person of Jesus.


An essential part of God hangs with us in this church at the ‘9/11 Stations of the Cross.’ God hangs with those who perished at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and that barren field in PA. God is with those religious Jews who take this time every year to repent of their sins during Yom Kippur. God is with all those who are abused by domestic violence. And, whether or not we want to admit it, or want to acknowledge it, God is with those who commit acts of violence and terrorism. I don’t know how, but I do know that God will never abandon one of God’s own creation – even in sin.


There are no coincidences in this world.  Only God acting anonymously.  And, the comfort we can take is in that is this: Even in our moments of pain and grief and desolation, we are not alone.  God is with us. Jesus is present to us and with us to guide and comfort us. And, the spirit of those who are now in the mystical sweet communion of God are as near to us as our next breath.




Lessons:                       Exodus 14:19-31

                                    Psalm 114:1-8

                                    Romans 14:1-12

                                    Matthew 18:21-35

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